Tuesday, July 03, 2012

If you want loyalty, hire a dog

Note to readers: As some of you have noticed, I posted and then took this post down for editing. I wasn't satisfied with the balance.

Tonight a personal aside. I will return directly to a professional discussion of the topic of new ways of working today or tomorrow. But first a graphic from Ramana that really made me laugh.  I actually disagree If you wany loyalty quite profoundly, but that can wait.

To set the scene for tonight's post, I have just organised a personal coach plus enrolled in a short six week course at UTS Sydney on e-publishing. More on that at the end.

We all mine our own experiences. Certainly I do.

Twenty five years ago this month I resigned as an SES officer in the Commonwealth Public Service to pursue a different dream. Sixteen years ago I chose to adopt the primary child care role. It wasn't a rational conscious decision, more something I drifted into because I liked it.

Those two decisions have shaped my subsequent life. In the twenty five years since I left Canberra, I have:

  • Completed directly or managed around 400 consulting or training assignments for well over 120 clients. Seventy per cent of those clients were in the private sector.
  • Spent a bit over three years working in positions that might be classified as "permanent" where I worked for someone else and didn't have to worry directly about my pay.
  • Spent some twenty Melbourne Cups alone in a home office where, in most cases, I didn't even bother to watch the race because the Cup is best shared.
  • Spent, including contact work, a total of three years in Government agencies. The rest has been mainly private sector even where my clients were Government.
  • Attended hundreds of school or university activities.

Why am I boring you with all this? Well, for most of the last twenty five years I have occupied the space I am writing about in this series on new ways of working. That is not an appeal to authority, simply advice that my views have been affected by my experiences. During that period, my experiences have shifted my views on a continuing basis. I campaigned for management changes that I now campaign against. My views on relationships, on family and partner roles have shifted too. They are less simplistic, more hard headed, than they were even ten years ago.

In my writing, I have tried to generalise, to point to the lessons from my own experience.  Of course those experiences are partial, as are the conclusions I draw from them. That is true for all of us.

I am not a pessimist, nor am I blind to the way my conclusions are affected by my experiences. I would argue, however, that when it comes to the space occupied by what I now call new ways of working, my views have a certain validity because I have been in that space for a very long time.

In my first post, I suggested that our networks and knowledge have a half life of perhaps eighteen months. That's actually a very hard fact. We rely on our work in particular to refresh, to maintain currency. The changes created by what I call new ways of working demand that we take responsibility for ourselves. We can no longer rely on others. We have to constantly recreate.

The language connected with new ways of working is deeply embedded in political discourse. We talk of responsibilities, not rights. The word entitlements has become not a descriptor, but a pejorative term. We talk about flexibility, the need for constant adjustment, about the need for our systems to become flexible and innovative.

If we strip away the language and focus just on the people
involved, we have been demanding a fundamental shift in the way that people behave, in the things that they value, in the things that they do.

This photo came from Man of Glass via Katie Barnett. (Image lost) Again I laughed. But it illustrates, I think, the point that relationships of all types have become increasingly transactional, matters for negotiation. If you want loyalty, hire a dog. Or wrap things up in agreements from pre-nups to performance agreements.

Don't get me wrong. I actually happen to think that it's a good thing that people should take more responsibility for themselves. I believe this in a general sense. However, it also protects people at a time of increasing instability when they simply cannot rely on the institutions that surround them.If that sounds harsh, consider this.

People crave stability. They always have. They need stability to give them that sense of territory, to bring up their families, to protect them in the inevitable hardships of life. How can you plan the most basic decisions when you have no expectation that the things that you depend on will survive?

If you really push people hard, you will find that they have no expectations about the stability of their immediate world. They actually don't believe a word of it. They know that things will change. They have seen it all before. The deep distrust of firms and government present in the Australian community comes from the simple fact that they cannot be trusted. Who really believes that superannuation or pensions or jobs or health care will actually survive? Or if they do survive, just what their form will be?

The need for people to look after themselves is very old simply because the world is very uncertain. People look to the things that they do have a degree of control over - family, friends - or turn to religion. They turn to rules and controls. They also turn to cooperative action such as insurance or mutual benefit societies.

As I explored in an earlier post, ideas of insurance and risk sharing emerged very early in recorded human history. Later, the rise of the cooperatives and mutual benefit societies during the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries was quite remarkable. A worker in, say, Glen Innes could get access to medical care though a simple annual premium. They couldn't access the range of technology based medical services available today, but they had something not available today: simple guaranteed access to basic medical care. They might die from accident or infection, but the doctor was there.

I don't want this post to turn into too much of a diatribe.

I guess that my point is that that we cannot go back, we have to accept the hand we are dealt.  Just as I look to personal coaching or new training, things that I pay for myself, to give me future options, so all of us have to learn to manage our life and careers in a newly unstable world whose instability comes from the very institutions on which we depend.

What we haven't addressed, I am presently arguing, is just what this all means. How do we help people to manage their lives and careers?

Now some would argue following through the logic of personal responsibility that this is a non-question. If people are responsible, they are responsible. I don't think that this washes.

Leave aside the fact, I would argue that it is a fact, that the greatest advances in human life have come from those who think of others. Focus instead on the practical. What is the best way of giving people the attitude and skills required to survive in this new world? And if we don't, what will happen in a world where contribution is determined by money and appreciation? I don't think that these are abstract questions.

An article in the Atlantic Monthly, Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, generated considerable controversy in the US and in Australia. My take on it was a little different. Change women to people. Of course we can't have it all. We have to make choices, and those choices have become harder not just because of changes in social and economic structures, but because greater wealth has given us the illusion that we can in fact do as we want. We can't. We may have more options, more choices, but the harsh reality remains.

In my next post and the last on new ways of working, I will return to my main argument.


Rummuser said...

"What is the best way of giving people the attitude and skills required to survive in this new world? And if we do, what will happen in a world where contribution is determined by money and appreciation? I don't think that these are abstract questions."

No, these are not abstract questions and surely do need action. The starting point however is that the affected people should WANT some guidance. And there lies the problem. When the environment has changed to what it is today in the employment/career field towards a mercenary attitude, few want such guidance. Pontificating on old fashioned values does not register to a guy who is looking to be street smart. He says that those values were alright when it was a two way traffic but now it is expected from the cannon fodder but not forthcoming from the employers, and so he has to accept that a tit for tat value system is perfectly alright.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

I have other things to say but I'd just like to pick up now on your comment "if you want loyalty hire a dog". I disagree strongly with that statement - I know it's somehow meant to be funny - mainly because I've always operated on the basis "if you want loyalty, show loyalty".

I'm saying that it's a two way street, and I regard that clip as very cynical, and destroying a very basic asset of any business. In fact I'd actually walk away from any "boss" who believed that. Way beyond ressurection, I would think.

ps did I tell you I disagree strongly?

Anonymous said...

It is important to be honest with ourselves. Sometimes we must face up to past failures in order to move on with life.

Perhaps 'I resigned as an SES Officer' means 'I left because I was stripped of my responsibilities'.

Perhaps 'I chose to adopt the primary child-care role' means 'my wife supported me financially'.

Perhaps 'These two decisions have shaped my subsequent life' means 'I blew my savings and squandered my assets'.

Perhaps if you have 'just organised a personal coach' then you might reflect that if you can't organise your own professional life, you shouldn't be so free with advice as to how others should organise theirs.

Naturally I don't expect these comments to appear on your blog, but you would do well to take heed of them. It's never too late to start afresh, but we must acknowledge our shortcomings and not try to over-reach ourselves.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana, you have captured one of my points.

kvd, I did feel that you disagreed strongly! Loyalty is critical.

Anon, thank you for your comment. You obviously know me reasonably well. I will think about the points you make.

This is an open blog. With the exception of spam comments, I rarely delete comments on this blog unless they are libelous or deliberately hurtful to others. So your comment stands.

More broadly, I think that it would be inappropriate for me to respond directly. However, I do need to make one correction for purely professional reasons.

It is factually incorrect to say that I resigned as an SES officer because I was stripped of my responsibilities. It is correct, and I have written about this, to say that one of the factors in my resignation was a relative decline in my ability to get things done as new systems came into play. However, other factors were involved as well including some previous dreams that had been around for a while.